In the book Iyengar, The Yoga Master, there is a chapter about teaching with integrity. ‘When you are treating an imbalance that you have personally experienced you will be able to sense the effects that certain postures have on particular problems’. My personal experience is with breast cancer.
I was diagnosed with stage 1b breast cancer in September 2019, I had found a small lump a few months previous and decided to get it checked out. I went along to the follow up appointment on my own as I really didn’t think anything was wrong. The message delivered by the consultant completely rocked my world.
I was fit, enjoyed a balanced diet, had a strong support network and community of friends, yet something was obviously not at ease in my body. I announced my diagnosis to a set of close friends and whilst some crumbled and used language such as shocking, awful, dreadful there was one friend who really stood out for me. She invited me to join her for a yoga class at a local studio – Blessed. I had tried yoga before but nothing had piqued my interest. I was very much of the mindset that to benefit from exercise you needed to get hot and sweaty, I enjoyed running and cycling so yoga had always felt to be too gentle. I went along to the class run by Tim Perry with an open mind and absolutely loved it.
It was a moving meditation, which worked my body, cleared my mind of chatter and left me feeling very emotional. I realised during that one hour of practice that yoga was what my body had been missing. Truly looking after myself hadn’t been my priority. My previous exercise routine and the way which I was doing it had no doubt been keeping me in a state of fight or flight and I was not finding the deep relaxation my body desired. I hadn’t been listening to my body, it was a time pre-covid when being busy was a badge worn with pride. I was juggling a career and family and doing my best to make everything work.
About 10 days after my diagnosis I had a lumpectomy operation and was given a series of stretches to do post op. The main issue I recall was something called cording. After surgery to remove lymph nodes in the armpit it is very common to develop cord-like structures under the skin, it causes an uncomfortable feeling like a tight cord running from your armpit to your hand. It felt restrictive and I was keen to get back to yoga as soon as I could.
After a few weeks I returned to practicing yoga, I loved going to different classes and experiencing different teachers. This practice combined with a prescription of walking from my surgeon really helped me stay grounded, grateful and positive throughout what could have been a really dark period.
I was keen to understand my treatment plan, but it wasn’t as clear cut as I would have liked, extra tests followed to ensure the medical team could provide me with the best treatment plan possible. Chemotherapy was presented to me as an option and my choice, I chose to take it, and recognised it wouldn’t be an easy few months.
Before my first chemotherapy infusion I took my husband along to a yoga class, this time led by Nikki Perry. It was an incredible way to set myself up. I went into the hospital with a ‘bring it on’ attitude and felt like my body was open and ready to accept the treatment. For the first session it took me almost a week to get back to yoga, and I started with yin yoga about 4 days after. With each treatment my recovery period reduced until it was only 2 days after treatment that I was back on my mat. With each class my self pity fell away and I was left with a deeper curiosity of myself and my yoga practice which continues to this day.
My practice continued through chemotherapy and then radiotherapy. The habit had been created, my body now craved the practice and I have continued to develop and grow in my practice ever since.
Things to consider whilst practicing through cancer treatment…
Energy levels – It’s OK to rest in child’s pose for a whole class if you need to. You may not have the energy you’ve had previously, but just showing up on your mat and being part of a class will help to quieten the chatter in your mind and bring a fresh perspective.
Accessing poses – Either due to an operation, chemotherapy or radiotherapy you may not be able to access all the stretches and poses in the same way you could before, but that’s OK. The asanas you need and are right for you constantly change at each moment. Your yoga practice will continue to shift and change throughout your journey.
Picc line – I had a picc line fitted which was more of an inconvenience. It didn’t stop my accessing any of the poses, but I tended to favour the opposite arm for poses such as side plank whilst I got used to it. I didn’t want to cause an embarrassment for any of my fellow yogis and therefore wore a cycling arm warmer to cover the picc line whilst I was practicing.
Hair loss – I lost all of my hair and used a head band to cover my bald head, partly to not stand out, but again to be a bit more normal for others around me.
Olivia Newton John was diagnosed with breast cancer in her 40’s and said ‘I look at my cancer journey as a gift: It made me slow down and realise the important things in life and taught me to not sweat the small stuff’. She also said ‘the experience gave me much more understanding and compassion and I wanted to help others going through the same journey’. I echo those thoughts and feel drawn to helping others.
I now teach a monthly yoga class at Cancerwise in Chichester. It is a 60 minute class which changes depending on the needs of the attendees. It will invariably involve breathwork, meditation and a series of gently yoga poses to help move the body and clear the mind.
Love & Light